A Name Change for Avery Fisher Hall, 61 Times Over

September 21, 2015
"The changing over to David," as Johnny Rivera describes it, has kept him busy, and he is appreciative. "I have to thank him personally for giving me more work," Mr. Rivera, who is on a first-name basis with the David in question, said.

He is also on a last-name basis.

Mr. Rivera owns a design firm that installs signs in places like Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art and 1 World Trade Center. Giving him more work was probably not something that David the entertainment mogul David Geffen thought about when Lincoln Center announced that he was giving $100 million to renovate and rename Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic.

But there are 61 signs and maps that say "Avery Fisher" around Lincoln Center signs on the building at the southwest corner of Broadway and 65th Street, signs over the box office in the lobby, maps on the plaza opposite the fountain. Mr. Rivera has had a hand in replacing them all.

By the time the philharmonic's season opens on Thursday, Mr. Rivera will be gone, and so will Avery Fisher's name. After 42 years, Avery Fisher Hall will officially become David Geffen Hall, even though the renovations are not scheduled to begin until 2019 and what they will involve is still in the discussion stage.

"It's bittersweet," Mr. Rivera said. "Avery Fisher has been synonymous with Lincoln Center, but you get used to changes. Nothing lasts forever in this city."

Indeed, 2015 has been a year for some noticeable signage changes. In July, NBC's owners renamed the G.E. Building the Comcast Building and turned on new lettering with an NBC peacock perched on top. That installation involved more than taking down the red G and E and putting up seven new letters in "Comcast." For the first time, signage another peacock was placed on the west face of the building.

Mr. Rivera, 50, sounded nostalgic about the old G and E, even though he was not involved in taking them down or in changing other signs around 30 Rockefeller Plaza (still the RCA Building to curmudgeons who remember when it went by an earlier name and had lettering on only the north and south faces).

"G.E.'s been such a part of the New York culture that, for it to change to Comcast, it was a bit sad," he said as sad as Bell Atlantic's transformation into Nynex and later into Verizon. "I was so used to the Bell logo, which I loved," he said. "Verizon is just a commercial logo, not appealing at all, but that's just my opinion."

At Lincoln Center, the sign makeover brought a visual consistency to the philharmonic's home, which opened in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall and was cursed with acoustical problems like dead spots. Mr. Fisher's $10.5 million gift in 1973 went toward a renovation that vastly improved the sound.

But in appearance, the building was the last at Lincoln Center to be freshened up with signs in a typeface called Univers. Mr. Rivera was in on the changeovers that removed the old serif typeface when the New York State Theater became the David H. Koch Theater. He also installed signs in Univers for the Juilliard School, across 65th Street from where the philharmonic plays.

The letters that spell "Avery Fisher Hall" and "Home of the New York Philharmonic" over the box office windows had already been taken down last week, and some carefully coordinated lobby remodeling was going on. The brass replacement letters were downstairs on a conference table the 8 3/4-inch capital letters in "David Geffen Hall" are taller than the capitals in "Home of the New York Philharmonic" by 4 3/8 inches.

"I counted every letter and every dot," said Amanda Dunn, Lincoln Center's assistant director for operations and event services, who oversees projects like sign installations.

It turns out that there are a lot of dots to count. The dots after donors' middle initials disappear. Sometimes passers-by make off with them. Sometimes they simply fall off their wall or column. On Ronald P. Stanton Way a walk running across what Lincoln Center calls its campus the period after Mr. Stanton's middle initial was missing.

Ms. Dunn took note as she watched Mr. Rivera work on changing a map a few steps away.

"Very few people appreciate signage," Mr. Rivera said. "Signage is probably the lowest-rated art form. People just glance at it and move on, unless it's something really extravagant with lighting and neon. People take it for granted, but it takes a lot of creativity." (He is working as a subcontractor to Visual Graphic Systems, which manufactured the signs to plans from 2X4, a graphic design studio.)

He said he did not find it frustrating that people pay so little attention to signs. "Actually, I find it amusing," he said. "Most people, when they read something, they're not really looking at the scale of the work or the size of the fonts or the colors. They just read and move on. They don't appreciate the letter forms, the placement. Signage is one of those things that's overlooked, but it's pivotal to the city, because without signage and graphics, most people wouldn't get to where they're going."

Mr. Rivera studied interior design at Parsons School of Design. He gravitated toward signage soon after graduation in 1986 when he designed the space for a restaurant in Nyack. "They asked me if I could design their logo or get someone to do their signage," he said. "I never really thought about signage and how important it was to have the signage in the right location. I was fascinated by how much consideration it took."

He said the restaurant had changed its name a couple of times over the years but did not hire him for new signage.

"I became a little pricey for them," he said. "They went to people a little cheaper than I was."

The New York Times
By James Barron
Photo by Brian Harkin